Stuart Christie, We, The Anarchists!: A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937, Meltzer Press, Hastings, 1996, pp105, £12.95.
AS STUART CHRISTIE points out, it would be strange if a revolutionary movement such as the Federación Anarquista Iberica (FAI) did not attract its share of slander. It has also produced genuine puzzlement among non-Anarchist observers. The main source of difficulty is its relationship to the Anarchist trade union, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). Marxists have tended to see the FAI as playing the rôle of a political party. Others have seen the FAI as a Freemasonry manipulating the CNT. According to the much-cited account of Angel Pestaña, a former National Secretary of the CNT, in his book, Lo que Aprendí en la Vida, democratic control of the CNT was frustrated by the existence of secret groups who would sort out recalcitrant employers and their hired killers, by shooting them. Pestaña’s main evidence is drawn from a period long before the FAI existed, in a context of employers and police squads murdering union activists. The CNT needed to protect its members. Nevertheless, Pestaña’s point that defence squads tend to act as saviours from on high is surely valid.
Christie’s explanation of the controversy about the FAI’s evolution is original and interesting. He argues that there were two FAIs. The original, formed in 1927, far from being a secret, centralised force manipulating the CNT, was a loose coalition of ‘affinity groups’, usually close friends consisting of three to 10 people, who carried out a variety of activities, without trying to dictate to anyone. Far from being secret, FAI members who were prominent in the CNT were always known as such. They led by example, rather than by obtaining bureaucratic positions. Decisions were taken at the level of the affinity group, rather than the FAI.
Why should either the FAI, or the affinity groups, be necessary? Christie argues that all organisations, including the CNT, tend to become bureaucratic and to perpetuate their own existence, to the detriment of the purposes for which they were created. Having an Anarchist ideology did not in itself arrest that process. In 1927, when the FAI was founded, the Primo de Rivera dictatorship was beginning to crumble. CNT leaders began to scent the possibility of transforming their organisation into a legal, reformist trade union. The FAI militants fought to prevent that happening, and in 1928 succeeded in getting the CNT to accept a joint defence and solidarity committee, but with the coming of the Republic in 1931, the reformist tendency in the CNT leadership was strengthened. The Republic’s persecution of Anarchists produced support in the rank and file for the FAI’s criticism of reformism. Late in 1931, 30 prominent CNT leaders issued a statement repudiating what they considered as putschist and adventurist activities, which was to be the basis of a split. In March 1932, Pestaña had to resign as National Secretary, and was replaced by Manuel Rivas, an FAI member.
All of this is well documented, and agrees with the account of Peirats, the main historian of the CNT. Christie’s claim that the FAI, its mission accomplished, then practically ceased to exist, is more controversial. He claims that, as the FAI militants returned to being ordinary CNT activists, the shell of their organisation was taken over by a group of theoreticians and rootless intellectuals led by Diego Abad de Santillán, who eventually turned it into a political party. This claim will not be universally accepted, partly because there are conflicting accounts about who was a member of the FAI. However, it is clear that the organisation did not oppose class collaboration after 1936. The Popular Front government was supported by CNT members who were in the FAI, as well as by those who were not. In March 1939, when the Spanish Popular Front split between supporters of Negrín and the Stalinists on the one hand, and those hoping for a negotiated peace on the other, the libertarian movement was also divided, but not on revolutionary versus reformist lines.
This book is a useful start to an investigation which should be carried further. Christie is surely right in believing that organisations have a tendency to become bureaucratic, and that Anarchist incantations will prove no more effective in preventing degeneration than Marxist ones have.